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Hawks see Bolton having Trump’s back for hard line against North Korea

March 23, 2018

National Security Adviser-designate John Bolton’s long record of tough talk could give President Trump some much-needed rhetorical back-up in difficult upcoming negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, some security policy watchers say, even as critics warn Mr. Bolton’s appointment could undermine the delicate, multilateral diplomacy needed to strike a deal with Pyongyang.

While outgoing White House national security chief H.R. McMaster was widely seen as a brake on Mr. Trump’s policies and rhetoric in confronting the North’s nuclear weapons build-up, the hawkish Mr. Bolton will likely reinforce Mr. Trump’s own inclinations to present a tough face to Mr. Kim.

“John Bolton is a brilliant iconoclast thinker who intuitively understands how to deal with dictators, including Chairman Kim,” said Michael Pillsbury, the Mandarin-speaking conservative intellectual who advised Mr. Trump’s transition team and has worked with nearly every U.S. administration since Richard Nixon.

Mr. Pillsbury, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, said that if Mr. Kim’s recent offer to halt nuclear weapons and missile testing while direct talks with South Korea and the U.S. turns out to be legitimate, it would represent a “stunning victory” for hardliners like Mr. Bolton, who as recently as February argued pre-emptive airstrikes were justified if the U.S. faced an imminent threat from North Korea’s military programs.

“Like President Trump, John Bolton excels at negotiating successfully, as he revealed in his best selling book, ‘Surrender is not an Option,’” Mr. Pillsbury said.

Frank Gaffney, president of the conservative Center for Security Policy, praised Mr. Bolton’s selection as much more than a “changing of the guard.”

“It is a sea change, one that holds promise of allowing Mr. Trump to accomplish his national security and foreign policy objectives, rather than endlessly contend with them being sabotaged by his own insubordinate subordinates.”

Along with the proposed replacement of the cautious Rex Tillerson at the State Department by CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Mr. Trump “will have actual adults [in his administration] who actually want him to succeed. Hallelujah,” Mr Gaffney said in a statement.

But others are far less optimistic about the transition from Gen. McMaster to Mr. Bolton, set to become official April 9.

While Mr. Bolton, currently a senior fellow with the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, has long enjoyed the support of GOP hawks by advocating aggressively for Washington to clarify who its enemies are and to be on a war footing against nations like North Korea and Iran, his positions are a source of deep unease for the left and for many libertarians.

“Americans who voted for Donald Trump believing he would be disinclined to start new wars should be puzzled by his decision to tap John Bolton as his third national security adviser,” says Christopher A. Preble, the vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute.

“The rest of us should be concerned,” Mr. Preble wrote in a blog posted Friday on the Institute’s website, adding that “Bolton has been one of the most reliably hawkish voices in American politics in recent memory.”

“His faith in the utility of force, and his general disdain for diplomacy, is legendary and apparently hasn’t been shaken by the wars of the recent past,” wrote Mr. Preble, noting that “most Americans 67 percent in a recent poll believe that the Iraq war failed to advance or, worse, undermined American security.”

Mr. Bolton, who years ago advocated in favor of the sacking Baghdad, “appears to agree with the mere 22 percent of Americans who think that that war made things better,” Mr. Preble wrote.

Within hours of Thursday’s announcement of Mr. Bolton’s pick, The New York Times published an editorial suggesting the development will derail the fragile chance of diplomacy with North Korea, highlighted by Mr.Trump’s surprise decision earlier this month to meet Mr. Kim face-to-face before the end of May.

“Bringing on the fiery Mr. Bolton now, at a delicate moment with North Korea, is a terrible decision,” the editorial argued. “While Mr. Trump has often threatened North Korea with military action, he accepted Mr. Kim’s invitation to a summit, brokered by South Korea’s president, who is eager for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis.”

“Mr. Bolton, by contrast, told Fox News earlier this month that talks would be worthless and has called South Korean leaders ‘putty in North Korea’s hands.’”

The paper added that Mr. Bolton “has argued for attacking North Korea to neutralize the threat of its nuclear weapons, which could set off a horrific war costing thousands of lives.”

But one former high-level American intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity with The Washington Times recently, argued that Mr. Kim very likely perceives Mr. Bolton to have influence in Washington at the moment, and saw him even prior to Thursday’s development as someone who could seriously impact Trump administration policy toward Pyongyang.

The former official went so far as to say they believed Mr. Bolton’s recent advocacy for a pre-emptive U.S. military strike against North Korea directly contributed to motivating Mr. Kim’s reported offer in early March to halt all nuclear and missile tests in pursuit of diplomacy with Washington.

At issue is a February 28 op-ed published by The Wall Street Journal, in which Mr. Bolton argued that despite North Korea’s “propaganda” around recent diplomacy with South Korea, the nuclear threat emanating from Pyongyang remains “imminent” and that Washington should be seriously weighing a strike against North Korean nuclear facilities.

“In contemporary times, Israel has already twice struck nuclear-weapons programs in hostile states: destroying the Osirak reactor outside Baghdad in 1981 and a Syrian reactor being built by North Koreans in 2007,” Mr. Bolton wrote. “This is how we should think today about the threat of nuclear warheads delivered by ballistic missiles. ... It is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current ‘necessity’ posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons by striking first.”

“Given the gaps in U.S. intelligence about North Korea, we should not wait until the very last minute,” he wrote. “That would risk striking after the North has deliverable nuclear weapons, a much more dangerous situation.”

What remains to be seen is whether he plans to further that argument once inside the White House.

Having served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2005 to 2006 in the George W. Bush administration, and as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security from 2001 to 2005, Mr. Bolton is no rookie to the kinds of internal fights that go on in an administration. Earlier in his career, he worked in under President Reagan as a policy official at USAID.

But how he goes about the pursuit of such ideas as pre-emptive military strikes is likely to make or break his effectiveness as Mr. Trump’s national security advisor, according to some former officials.

“Bolton may not be effective in the role if he reverts to the aggressive and ideological approaches that made him the darling of the right and the President in the first place,” says Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Mr. Green was a director for Asian affairs on President Bush’s national security council during the early 2000s when Mr. Bolton was working on arms control at the State Department. “Bolton is always a smart and unrelenting advocate for his own position, but at the State Department he developed a reputation for bomb-throwing and not consensus-building. This will not work at the NSC,” Mr. Green wrote in a blog published Friday by the Lowy Institute, a Sydney, Australia-based think tank.

″[He] will also find the White House Situation Room a very different setting than the Fox News studio when it comes to advocating military strikes on North Korea or immediate cancellation of the Iran nuclear deal, particularly when he has two combat-experienced Marines Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford sitting to his immediate right,” Mr. Green wrote.

As for those who support for Mr. Bolton, Mr. Pillsbury told The Times: “I first met him in the Reagan Administration in 1981 when he revolutionized our foreign aid program while a senior official at USAID because he required foreign aid recipients to expand free markets and the private sector.”

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